1970's Chicago Bears: Peaks & Valleys
1976 Chicago Bears team photo.
Organizational changes began to turn the team's fortunes around by the end of this decade, but not before they suffered the lowest points in their history.
Before the 1970 season even began, the Bears reeled from the aftermath of several events.
1969's 1-13 record was bad, but apparently was not bad enough.  Their only win of the season had been against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who ironically also finished 1-13.  In January, a coin toss was held to determine which team would pick first in the NFL draft.  The prize in that draft was Louisana Tech quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who would be a welcome improvement to either of the clubs.
Bear executive Ed McCaskey called the coin toss, held at a hotel in New Orleans, and lost.  An unidentified Chicago sportswriter reportedly yelled out "McCaskey you bum, you can't even win a coin flip!"
After losing out on Bradshaw, Chicago sent its #2 pick in the draft to Green Bay for three veteran players, none of which remained with the Bears for more than two seasons.
And throughout the spring of 1970, Brian Piccolo continued to fight a valiant but losing battle against embroynal cell carcinoma, a relatively rare disease.  The cancer spread through his lymphatic system to his breast and liver, and the 26-year-old father of three perised in June.  The following summer, the movie Brian's Song would be partially filmed at the team's training camp in Rensselaer, IN, and Piccolo and the Bears became Hollywood legends.
In August 1970, the Bears and St. Louis Cardinals scrimmaged in Rensselaer, donating the profits to the Piccolo family, and the Bears actually got off to a 2-0 start.  The start was followed by four straight losses, and the team finished the season 6-8.
In '71, the team moved to a new home at Soldier Field on Chicago's lakefront, and again finished the season with a 6-8 record.  George Halas and his club's President George S. "Mugs" Halas Jr., then tabbed assistant Abe Gibron to take over the team.
The Gibron years, 1972-74, were perhaps the worst on the football field but best on the sidelines in the organization's history.  "Abe loved to eat," as stated by so many of his players, and seemingly dedicated as much time at training camp amassing enormous cookouts as they did practicing.  Gibron spouted controversial lines to the media, fought a losing battle with his pants falling down on the sidelines, and led the Bears to three straight losing seasons.
In 1974, the younger Halas decided to take a huge step in the history of the franchise, for the first time turning the day-to-day operations of the team over to a General Manager.  Hired for this task was Jim Finks, architect of the great Minnesota Vikings teams of the early 1970's.  His first order of business was the firing of Gibron, who in his last comments as coach said he felt blessed to have been "one of the few NFL head coaches, not one of the 50,000 sportswriters."
Finks hired veteran NFL and CFL coach Jack Pardee to take over the club, and made Jackson State's Walter Payton his first draft pick in 1975.  By 1977 his team had rebuilt and reached the postseason for the first time since 1963.  In the playoffs, though, Chicago was blown out 37-7 at Dallas.  At the same time, Pardee was focusing on selling his house in Chicago while he prepared to take over as head coach of the Washington Redskins, leaving Finks to search for his second head coach in three years.
In 1978, Finks hired Vikings defensive coordinator Neill Armstong to be the new top boss.  Armstong made the playoffs once in his four seasons with the Bears, but perhaps more importantly brought in Buddy Ryan as defensive coordinator.  Ryan would revolutionize defensive football in the NFL with his "46" package.  He perhaps revolutionized offensive football as well, as offensive thinkers now had to come up with a quick passing game to neutralize the Ryan-inspired pass rush.
The Bears set a franchise record by losing eight straight games in the middle of the 1978 season, but saved mental disaster for the future by finishing 5-1.  That finish would be reprised in '79.  The team started the season 3-5 but finished 5-3 to make the playoffs for the second time in the decade.   
The playoffs were not easily made in '79, as due to a complicated playoff tiebreaking formula, the Bears would have to beat the St. Louis Cardinals by more than 33 points to clinch.  The morning of the game, players awoke to learn that team President "Mugs" Halas had died prematurely of a heart attack, giving them perhaps extra motivation as they wore their black armbands on that day.
Chicago beat St. Louis by the score of 42-6, making the playoffs, but were again defeated in the first round at Philadelphia by a 27-17 score.
That playoff game was the last for linebacker Doug Buffone, who played for the team for 14 seasons.  Buffone considers himself lucky, as stars Gale Sayers (retired in 1971) and Dick Butkus (retired in 1973), never played in a postseason game.
Head Coaches: Jim Dooley, 1970-1971; Abe Gibron 1972-1974; Jack Pardee, 1975-1977; Neill Armstrong 1978-1979
Championships: None, made NFC Playoffs in 1977 and 1979
Records: Best 10-6, 1979; Worst 3-11, 1973
Further Reading

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